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Substance Abuse and Addiction Health Center

Gender Gap in Prescription Pain Drug Abuse

Study Shows Men and Women Have Different Risk Factors for Abuse of Prescription Painkillers
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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

April 29, 2010 -- Gender appears to play a role in the risk of abuse of prescription pain drugs, a study shows.

Predictors of such abuse are different in men and women, researchers say, and knowing this could help doctors adopt treatment plans that are less likely to cause misuse of opioid medications.

The finding comes from a study involving 662 chronic noncancer patients taking opioid drugs for pain relief.

Researchers say misuse by women seems to be closely related to psychological distress. Prescription pain drugs are more likely to be misused by men who have social and behavioral problems.

"Since little has been published about gender differences and misuse of prescription pain medication, it is valuable to document whether risk factors for abuse are gender specific to some degree," says study researcher Robert N. Jamison, PhD, a clinical psychologist at Harvard's Brigham and Women's Hospital.

The study shows that men and women have similar frequencies of aberrant drug behavior but different risk factors for abuse of opioids.

Women who misuse pain drugs are more likely "to admit to being sexually or physically abused or have a history of psychiatric or psychological problems," Jamison says.

Women who are being treated for pain not caused by cancer and who exhibit signs of significant stress should be treated for mood disorders and counseled on dangers of relying on pain pills to help them sleep or reduce stress, the researchers say.

Men taking pain pills should be closely monitored for suspected behavioral problems, Jamison says. In addition, their pills should be counted to check adherence, and frequent urine screens also should be done.

Abuse of Opioids Is Growing

Jamison and colleagues write in the study that the use of opioids for chronic pain has been growing, and that between 3% and 16% of the population has a substance use disorder.

Indeed, some pain centers that dispense opioids "are overwhelmed with patients who are known or suspected to be abusing" their medications, the researchers write.

The study involved patients who had been prescribed opioids for chronic noncancer pain; about half the participants were men, half were women.

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